Since 2015 Islamist armed groups have expanded their activities from northern to central Mali, prompting the formation of ethnic militias and armed "self-defense groups" in many communities. Such groups have targeted civilians in attacks that have resulted in hundreds of deaths since March 2018. The violence has included the burning of villages and destruction of food sources. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, at least 202,000 people have fled violence in Mali so far this year.
Inter-communal violence continues to increase in Mali. In particular, a cycle of reprisal attacks in the Mopti region of central Mali has dramatically increased since January, with more than 600 people killed. Most fighting has taken place between Dozos – traditional hunters mainly from the Dogon ethnic community – and ethnic Bambara fighters, against members of the Fulani community. The UN Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) documented seven incidents between 1 January and 16 February that resulted in the deaths of 49 civilians in the Bankass area of Mopti alone. On 23 March Dozos reportedly killed at least 150 people, including 50 children, in an attack on the predominately Fulani village of Ogossagou. Armed men also killed dozens of civilians in the predominately Dogon villages of Sobane-Kou on 10 June, and Yoro and Gangafani 2 on 17 June. Fulani populations in Saran and Bidi were also attacked on 1 July, with least 23 people killed.
The violence in central Mali is partly a result of a stalled peace process. Following a 2012 military coup, Tuareg separatists and armed Islamist groups seized territory in northern Mali. Despite the presence of MINUSMA and a French-led intervention force, as well as the 2015 signing of the "Bamako Agreement," violence between government forces and various armed extremist groups – including Ansar Dine, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and others – has continued in northern Mali. MINUSMA has frequently been attacked by these groups, with 18 peacekeepers killed in malicious acts so far this year.
The porous border between Mali and neighboring Burkina Faso has facilitated the expanded activities of Islamist armed groups throughout the region. Since mid-2018 groups operating in Burkina Faso, particularly Ansaroul Islam, have perpetrated atrocities against populations in Soum Province, near the Mopti region of Mali. More than 60 civilians were killed in a series of inter-communal clashes on 31 March and 1 April near the village of Arbinda, Soum Province. There were also a growing number of deadly attacks on Christians during May.
More than 1,100 schools have been forced to close in Burkina Faso as a result of this growing violence. Counter-terrorism operations by the Burkinabè security forces have also led to grave human rights abuses perpetrated against civilians presumed to be sympathetic to Islamist armed groups.
Mali's security forces and Islamist armed groups have been implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated since 2012. Various parties to the conflict have also violated the Bamako Agreement or impeded its implementation. Militias and self-defense groups continue to target civilian populations on the basis of their ethnic and/or religious identity.
Any security response in Mali and Burkina Faso must take mass atrocity risks into consideration, in addition to fighting terrorism and countering violent extremism. Weak state institutions, porous borders and arms proliferation have exacerbated conflict in both countries.
Historically, the Dogon, Bambara and Fulani communities have clashed over access to land, water and grazing rights. However, recent fighting in central Mali and neighboring areas of Burkina Faso has been exploited by armed Islamist groups who have targeted young Fulani men for recruitment. The inability of Mali's government to provide adequate and equal protection to all vulnerable populations has accelerated the recruitment into rival armed groups and ethnic militias.
The governments of Burkina Faso and Mali are struggling to uphold their responsibility to protect.
Algeria served as a mediator regarding the conflict in Mali, helping to negotiate the June 2015 Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali (the "Bamako Agreement").
Following a referral by the interim government of Mali, the International Criminal Court launched an investigation into the situation in January 2013. During August 2017 former Ansar Dine leader Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi was sentenced for the war crime of partially destroying the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Timbuktu.
Operation Barkane, a 4,000-member French force, has led the international military response in Mali since January 2013. During July 2017 the G5 Sahel Force was established to combat border insecurity using troops from Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad.
MINUSMA was authorized by the UN Security Council (UNSC) during April 2013 with a civilian protection mandate. On 28 June the UNSC renewed MINUSMA for an additional year.
On 23 January 2018 the UNSC authorized the creation of a Commission of Inquiry to investigate violations of International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law in Mali between 2012–2018. On 20 December the UNSC authorized targeted sanctions, including asset freezes and travel bans, on three individuals for obstructing the peace process and violations of human rights, including recruitment of child soldiers and attacks on UN personnel. The Council added five additional people to the sanctions list on 10 July 2019.
On 23-24 March 2019 the UNSC met with leaders in Mali and Burkina Faso as part of a visiting mission to the Sahel. During their visit the Council condemned the massacre in Ogossagou.
On 27 March the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide issued a statement calling for Malians "to prevent and refrain from stigmatizing entire communities." The Special Adviser released a second statement, together with the Special Advisers on the Responsibility to Protect and on Children and Armed Conflict, on 10 June condemning atrocities perpetrated against civilians in the Mopti region.
Both governments, MINUSMA, Operation Barkane and the G5 Sahel Force must prioritize the protection of civilians. While countering violent extremism remains crucial for Mali and Burkina Faso, it is essential that both governments also ensure that their efforts do not further exacerbate inter-communal tensions and are undertaken in strict compliance with International Human Rights Law.
Additional measures must be implemented to stem the flow of weapons and end the proliferation of militias and self-defense groups. Disarmament, demobilization and reintegration efforts need to be focused on areas where atrocity risks are increasing in both Mali and Burkina Faso.
The government of Mali, with the support of MINUSMA and Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, should investigate the massacres in the Mopti region and hold all perpetrators accountable. The governments of both Mali and Burkina Faso should work with traditional and religious leaders to develop programs aimed at improv-ing inter-communal relations and reducing recruitment into armed groups and ethnic militias.
Last Updated: 15 July 2019